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A PROTEST BY ROBESON

DATE OF EVENT: Tuesday, Feb. 17, 1942

DATE PUBLISHED: Wednesday, Feb. 18, 1942, in The Kansas City Times

Editor’s note: Baritone Paul Robeson paused in his concert at Municipal Auditorium to protest against the segregated seating in the city-owned facility, saying he normally refused to play at segregated halls but would continue the concert because of pressure from leaders in the African-American community. Segregation at Municipal Auditorium remained in place for almost another decade, until coordinated protests against it led to a change in city policy in May 1951.

A song recital by a noted Negro baritone which progressed through the first half with the utmost harmony and good humor, moved suddenly into an atmosphere of tension and ill feeling after intermission last night, when Paul Robeson, the principal artist, announced from the stage that he was continuing the concert under protest against racial segregation in the Municipal Auditorium, where the concert was presented.

The singer made his announcement without warning, either by word or manner, at any time in the early part of the program. As he opened the second half, he said that he regretted to interrupt a concert with a speech.

“But,” he continued, “I have made it a lifelong habit to refuse to sing in Southern states or anywhere that audiences are segregated. I accepted this engagement under guarantee that there would be no segregation. Since many local leaders of my own race have urged me to fill this engagement, I shall finish the concert, but I am doing so under protest.”

Robeson then proceeded with a group of Russian songs, sung with his usual art and vigor, but obviously under an inner stress. He followed this group with an encore, the “Jim Crow” song, to verses of unmistakable racial protest, and he sang it with stronger feeling than he had put into any other number. At this point, a few whites in the audience rose and left the hall. There was no spontaneous exit, but white listeners, perhaps a hundred or more, trickled out the exits during the remainder of the concert.

When Robeson returned fifteen minutes later for his final group of spirituals, his usual good humor apparently had prevailed, and the tension greatly relaxed. The great majority who remained applauded the spirituals vigorously, and he closed the concert with his well-known rendition of “Ol’ Man River.” The audience left quietly, and at his dressing room door a crowd of more than a hundred gathered for autographs.

The concert was managed by the Auditorium staff, in conjunction with persons connected with the St. Louis Municipal Opera. Eugene Zachman and James Nixon of the Auditorium management denied any contractual obligation preventing segregation, but also denied that there was segregation in the usual sense. There were seats for Negroes in boxes, loges, on the main floor and in the balconies at all prices, Nixon said, but most of the Negroes were seated on the east side of the big hall. The managers both said they thought it strange that Robeson noticed no cause for protest until the concert was half over, leaving the inference that the temperamental artist was induced by others to lodge his protest.

Vocally, Robeson’s performance met the full expectation of everyone who has ever heard that tremendously resonant voice before on stage, screen, radio or records. The big voice is incredibly musical in every register and dynamic gradation, and in such songs as the opening “Lord God of Abraham” from “Elijah,” and throughout the group of arias and songs by the Russian, Moussorgsky, its volume penetrated to every nook of the Arena with astonishing power and clearness. Actor as well as vocalist, he is extraordinarily gifted in interpretation, for his speaking voice is no less musical than the voice he sings with.

In the popular “Ballad for Americans,” by Robinson and La Touche, which he introduced by radio two seasons ago, he was assisted by the Metropolitan Spiritual church choir. The ballad, a patriotic review of the never-ending struggle for American liberty from the proletarian viewpoint, is stirring enough under ordinary conditions, but greatly magnified in effect when it has the support of an enthusiastic chorus and the lashing vehemence of Robeson’s emotional diction. Unless one excepts the compelling spiritual rhythms of “Joshua Fit de Battle ob Jericho” and Robeson’s unique performance of “Ol’ Man River,” the “Ballad” was the most memorable musical moment of the evening.

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